Beyond the bubble - housing and the public
Ipsos MORI research director Ben Marshall blogs for CIH as we celebrate our centenary year.
Journalist Paul Mason recently argued that if we want to solve the housing crisis we must answer three questions:
- How much space are people entitled to live in?
- What is the optimal balance between the private, social and state-owned rented housing and the owner-occupied sector?
- What do we mean by "affordable"?
The point, he concluded, is to shape the "housing market towards smart outcomes."
These are, of course, sensible questions and laudable aims. But there are other, important, associated questions. In particular, what about the people that these outcomes are designed to benefit; what do they know, what do they want, need and expect? This is because it matters whether public opinion is friend or foe to endeavours to improve the state of housing in Britain.
Ipsos MORI is younger than both the Chartered Institute of Housing (born in 1916), and Shelter (1966), but MORI, as was, started tracking public attitudes in the 1970s. In October 1974, 27 per cent of the British public spontaneously mentioned housing as among the most important issues facing Britain. Britain was a very different place back then with the big issues of the day being unemployment, strikes and run-away inflation.
474 measures later, in November 2015, 21 per cent of people mentioned housing and it is 17 per cent today. The recent rise in salience is striking because for most of the period in between 1974 and 2015 housing was a strictly second (or lower) order issue, typically polling 10 per cent or less and struggling to compete for attention. But it has recently reached national prominence again, so much so that three-quarters recognise that Britain has a housing crisis.
Politicians have noticed. At the last general election the Social Market Foundation found housing featuring more strongly in Conservative and Labour party manifestoes than at the previous three elections. While housing is on the rise as an issue, the sense of national crisis drops sharply to 46 per cent when people are asked about their local area, and one potential reason for this is that the situation varies considerably geographically. Throughout 2015, only 8 per cent in the north of England thought of housing as an important national issue.
People tell us that their attitudes are shaped by lived experiences – much more so than evidence and statistics – and, for the most part, Britons don’t see or feel the housing crisis. If the housing challenge today is keeping up with population growth and the formation of new households, it was repairing bomb-damaged housing and clearing slums in the 1950s. The crisis was much more tangible then, and this served as a catalyst for the largest housebuilding push in British history.
Today we have ‘beds in sheds’, ‘poor doors’, rising homelessness and (in some areas) rocketing house prices but these are probably less visible or tangible than the 1950s’ slums. Still, we have witnessed one of the most striking shifts in public opinion in recent years. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey more people were opposed to new homes being built in their local area than were in favour as recently as 2010, but by last year this had reversed. Then, 56 per cent said they supported more homes in their area, more than double the 21 per cent who were opposed.
In the same vein, when we ask the public whether the government should borrow to build more affordable housing, the majority say yes (54 per cent) with only 20 per cent disagreeing and 26 per cent unsure. Of course if you told people that taxes might need to rise, or there would need to be extra cuts to public services or benefits to make this happen, then support might decline, but nevertheless, if you offer the public a list of different types of infrastructure investment choices– including airports, roads, railways, bridges – they choose housing ahead of anything else.
The Homes for Britain campaign responded to a national anxiety about housing and a desire to ‘do something’. Still, it would be premature to consider nimbyism beaten because public opinion has always been conditional – more ‘Maybe to Homes’ than ‘yes’ or ‘no’. When we discuss housing supply in focus groups we find supporters and opponents cooling and warming to it, depending on the proposition and its detail.
The tendency of opinion to swing pro or anti- housebuilding depending on the precise nature of the proposition – including its look and feel – was also very evident in Ipsos MORI research last year for Create Streets. Then, we found that unpopular types of housing can sharply decrease support for building new homes. Other research shows that new builds have an image problem with the public tending to see them as more expensive and smaller than existing, comparable stock. And in 2012 we did ethnography for RIBA and saw first-hand how poor design and space blights lives.
Of course all housing is local and the devolution and democratisation of planning decisions makes much sense, provided it reaches out beyond vocal locals or, as the NHF put it when launching the Yes to Homes campaign, “All too often the people who actually need homes are missing from local debates”. Last year in research for a district council in archetypal Middle England, we found weaker levels of support for homebuilding among those who said they had taken part in organised consultation, but stronger support among those involved in neighbourhood planning.
This begs the question, how should people be involved? Nick Boys Smith of Create Streets has argued that “too many…consultation exercises are self-serving and faked”. He suggests “[doing] proper research...You’ll build better, more popular places…And in the long-run they’ll be worth more too.” This surely makes sense; planners and place-shapers would do well to build an evidence base combining ‘hard’ demography and economy, and ‘softer’ sentiment.
Given its growing salience and status as a ‘boardroom issue’, why isn’t housing more of a decisive issue at elections? There are several reasons and these include the complicated nature of the crisis. For example, while it isn’t a front-of-mind issue at all in the North, in London it swamps everything, including the economy and immigration. This is hardly surprising when the value of London real estate, put at £1.1tn by Halifax, is almost double that of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales put together. London really is a different country.
In the capital we have found some worrying signs that people think they are seeing the housing crisis being addressed, and they don’t like what they see. Recent discussion groups in five outer London boroughs found a distaste for flats, seen as too often small and ‘poky’, or grand and unaffordable. There are 275 new tower blocks of over 20 stories underway which may change the London skyline forever, but most will not be affordable to Londoners on average wages, and only 27 per cent say they want to live in this sort of accommodation anyway. People are also sceptical that we are building the necessary infrastructure to support expansion in housing supply and population growth.
Adding to this complexity, people also struggle to understand who is responsible for fixing things. Because most housing is privately owned or rented – and given our complex planning system – it makes it hard to pin “blame” on any one organisation or government. Peter Malpass described housing as the “wobbly pillar of the welfare state” and, clearly, the state doesn’t have the same direct control over housing as it does with, say, the NHS. Little wonder that the majority view at last year’s general election was that the outcome would make little difference to the local housing situation.
Another complication is that while people recognise the housing crisis, they are unaware of the scale and nature of many of its key features. For example, they are fairly accurate on house prices but under-estimate the affordability gap (in particular, the average deposit required). They think social housing is more prevalent than it is, owner-occupation less so. And while more support than oppose retention of the greenbelt in England, two-thirds think a quarter or more of the country is already developed with the real figure 10 per cent or less depending on definition.
The result is that the public don’t know how bad the state of housing in Britain is, but also perhaps how good some of the solutions might be. This matters because research points to social norms influencing behaviour. As well as having significant ramifications for the housing market, (mis)perceptions could determine people's receptiveness to government policy and interventions. For example, people’s assessment of situations might shape their propensity to buy or sell property, take on mortgage debt, buy new-build properties, or consider shared or intermediate ownership (a tenure which still has considerable untapped potential).
Housing is a key generational issue and exclusion of younger generations from home ownership is a focus for most studies on intergenerational equity. Indeed one of the best-known generational trends of recent years has been defined solely in relation to tenure ('generation rent'), and others (like the “Boomerang Generation”) have housing pressures at their core.
Our recent research for MumsNet found housing a bone of contention between generations of women. And our generational analysis illustrates the persistent and near universal attraction of home ownership. It is a near-religion in Britain; the British Social Attitudes Survey has consistently shown over time that given a free choice, over 80 per cent of each generation would choose home ownership. While the data from the survey only goes back to 1996, the lack of change in views and almost complete consistency between generations is rare among other social attitudes. This points to a deep-rooted principle, but also, perhaps, a pragmatic rejection of the alternative.
Despite the realities of declining owner-occupation, there doesn’t seem to be a fundamental shift to embracing the benefits of renting. The interesting choice of emphasis for policy-makers and political parties first identified by colleague Bobby Duffy a few years ago, remains apposite; should the focus be on dealing with the reality – particularly improving the private renting offer – or should we focus on meeting aspirations for ownership?
The Conservatives seem to have made their minds up, and in 2015 set out their stall as the party of aspiration and homeownership. A portent of this was our pre-election research for CIH which found, uniquely, higher numbers of Conservative MPs identifying making it easier for first-time buyers to own or part-own their own homes as a government priority above choosing building more homes.
Housing is probably the aspiration issue. Two-thirds of Britons agree that getting on the property ladder is one of the most important ways of getting on in life. It is not just about aspiration though because the British are also hard-wired to fairness and remain sensitive to both the uneven effects of recovery from the recession, and equality of opportunity. We have found that when learning of any big policy statement they tend to have three immediate questions; how much is this going to cost, where is the money going to come from, and who is going to benefit? A fourth – are they deserving? – will is a litmus test for public support.
All rungs of the ladder
Much of the narrative about housing has been about generation rent and first time buyers. But, electorally at least, targeting the top end of the ladder makes perfect sense nationally. While future projections show that private renting will grow significantly, especially in London, homeowners and mortgage-holders will continue to remain more electorally powerful given their numbers and propensity to vote for some time yet. At the next election, two in five voters will be over 50.
But, more than electoral arithmetic alone, many older folk want to move and downsize with perhaps as many as a fifth are interested in moving home according to the Understanding Society survey. Are they catered for adequately though? Think also of Danny Dorling’s challenge to the issue of housing supply; we have plenty of homes, they are just not occupied efficiently.
When it comes to provision at the top of the ladder, as well as wanting to protect and realise housing assets for future generations, older people will have to consider the funding of future social care. By 2018 there will be over 50 per cent more people with three or more long-term conditions in England compared to 2008. Care costs will be more acute, and homeowners will be looking to realise equity and downsize.
Customer viewpoints are often complicated. For example, some concept-testing research we did for a landlord found that while potential customers were supportive of a specialist retirement development in principle, they were concerned about their ability to sell-on their property and realise it as an asset. The question they had is would they be able to pass on the equity to relations?
What’s interesting here is that the baby boomer generation tends to automatically look to HM Government to “do something”, much more so than millennials who are less likely to seek collective solutions to their problem. Could this be an opportunity to steady the “wobbly pillar” of the welfare state? And could help to sell (help to downsize?) be as necessary as help to buy?
A consumer revolution
Consumers, customers, tenants, residents; whatever we term them, they are changing. So too is technology and the digital divide will narrow. At the same time, people expect choice and control, and poor experience is no longer just a story for family and friends but can be shared very publicly at the touch of a button.
Digital technology is opening up new possibilities for harnessing conversations and collecting customer insights including, for example, big data analysis and segmentation of customer databases, social (media) listening and in-the-moment feedback via smartphones. Wearable technology and 3D printers could also offer potential as research tools, as well as routes to delivering services differently.
On the flip side, accelerating change and the proliferation of information and choice may be affecting us in ways we have not yet fully understood. Google’s Eric Schmidt worries that the “level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information…is in fact affecting cognition.” For many years we have impressed on clients in the public and private sectors that target audiences are busy and distracted (and often tired). These challenges have intensified. So too has the credibility gap between consumers/citizens and brands/governments.
As well as these mega trends, historians will surely record austerity and radical welfare reform as significant episodes in early twenty-first century Britain. While we have not seen the full impacts of this yet, in the housing sphere it is changing the relationship between landlords and customers. Deep budget cuts mean local authorities and social landlords now have to deploy ‘demand management’, balancing following and leading customers, being social and commercial, deciding what to deliver and, crucially, what to not deliver.
This means it will be important to really understand customers’ capabilities and behaviours, what they expect (and don’t), and why. CIH’s Terrie Alafat is surely right to call for high quality evidence to better inform decision-making while ensuring that evidence has “a human face”. I take this to mean an understanding of what is happening, and what works, but also the actual impact on people and their lived experience. This applies to government, but also housing providers, builders and planners; there is possibly too much superficial measurement, not enough insight.
According to Christian Hilber of the London School of Economics, the long-run consequences of radical action on housing, particularly low rates of new building, “could prove socially explosive and economically traumatic”. In the future, people might get angrier about housing while mortgage interest rates will surely add to difficulties when they start to rise in 2017. But our recent research has detected fatalism about the future in places where the housing crisis is at its most acute, and there is a risk that people become increasingly disappointed with the solutions they see.
The worry is that this could reverse the trajectory of growing support for housebuilding. Danger also comes in the way the housing and Westminster bubbles continue to talk about supply and numbers, and the discredited term “affordable housing” which seems to be morphing into an equally unconvincing “genuinely affordable housing”.
The smart outcomes described by Paul Mason will be hard to come by, especially if the sense of crisis and urgency tips people, politicians and housing professionals into paralysis as housing comes to be considered too difficult/too complicated. The challenges are certainly strategic and systemic (and, thus, substantial). To work, policy will need to protect aspirations and assets, reintroducing fairness into a mediated market and supporting change, while ameliorating change anxiety. Such challenges are not peculiar to housing, but they are probably more acute.
Public sentiment has played a key role in bringing housing issues to the fore in recent years and we have seen some important shifts in outlook. But it might be foe as well as friend, a possible block to solutions. This means that public and consumer worlds need understanding, and responding to. We should reach out beyond the bubble.
Acknowledgements and PDF
Thanks to Stephen Finlay (Ipsos MORI) and Louise Fisher (CIH) for comments on an earlier draft.
- Ben Page, ‘Why isn't housing a more decisive issue in elections?’, The Independent, 2015
- Bobby Duffy, ‘Housing aspirations’, 2012 (http://www.ipsos-mori-generations.com/housing)
- Danny Dorling, ‘All that is solid: How the great housing disaster defines our times, and what we can do about it’, 2014
- DCLG, ‘Public attitudes to house building: Findings from the 2014 British Social Attitudes survey’, 2015
- Ipsos MORI, Global trends 2014: Navigating the new, 2014
- Ipsos MORI research for clients including CIH, NHF, Shelter, RIBA, Royal Statistical Society, Create Streets, British Property Federation and many more
- Nick Boys Smith, ‘Dare to hope’, 24Housing, 2015
- Paul Mason, ‘If we want to solve the housing crisis we must answer these three questions, The Guardian, 2016
- Peter Malpass, ‘Housing and the welfare state’, 2005
- Terrie Alafat, ‘Studying the evidence’, Inside Housing, 2015